Facing a surge in violence that has made it the United Nations’ deadliest peacekeeping operations now, the UN mission in Mali is struggling to convince populations in the north of the country that it can overcome the remaining obstacles to ensuring that a peace agreement is signed soon and to help restore stability in the sprawling West African state.
That is the picture drawn from a public opinion study done in the northern cities of Gao, Kidal and Ménaka, published recently by the German political foundation, Friedrich Ebert, which found that less than a third those surveyed, or 28 percent, had a positive view of the UN mission’s work.
Beyond the survey, Mali is teetering on the edge of either falling further into chaos or climbing safely out of it. Infighting among armed factions and government-sponsored militias has contributed to more instability as extremists creep closer to central Mali and its capital, Bamako. Amid the sporadic violence, for example, nine UN peacekeepers were reportedly wounded in a suicide-bomb attack at a UN base in the north on April 15, and three civilians were killed.
The backdrop to the rising violence has a bright spot: the government’s effort, finally, to carry out a UN-brokered peace agreement among the mainstream feuding parties — including an array of Tuareg separatists — but not with extremists. Yet even the status of signing the agreement is uncertain as no one in the UN, as of this writing, could confirm a date for the process, which was supposedly happening this week.
FES, as the German foundation is called, is based in Bonn and Berlin, with regional offices worldwide, such as Bamako. The foundation is affiliated with the Social Democratic Party of Germany and promotes public policy issues.
Its recent survey reflects the huge challenges before the UN mission in Mali, or Minusma, which was deployed in July 2013 to defuse tensions after a coup and an ensuing Islamic-extremist takeover of the north. Minusma acquired the mandate after the French military kicked out the extremists for a short while.
The UN Security Council held a briefing on April 9 on the current political conditions in Mali and on Minusma, during which council members heard mostly about the pending peace agreement. It has been negotiated for eight months and is meant to resolve longstanding differences between the government and two main opposition parties: hard-core Tuareg separatists, or the Coordination of Azawad Movements (CMA); and the Platform group of armed pro-Mali Tuaregs and Arabs.
The foreign minister of Mali, Abdoulaye Diop, for example, repeated what the council has heard before: that the agreement is close to being signed, provided the hard-core Tuareg network relents. The group is demanding a separate federation called Azawad, while the Malian government says absolutely not. Control over natural resources is part of the power struggle.
In light of the frustrations over repeated delays, the Security Council threatened at the briefing to impose sanctions on groups who jeopardize the peace agreement’s signing.
Clashes between the government and armed militias (including the CMA) have led to a serious deterioration of the humanitarian situation in the north along with the re-emergence of extremist groups. Competition for dominance of strategic commercial and regional illicit trafficking routes lies behind much of the violence in northern Mali as well, the UN said in a recent report from the secretary-general’s office.
Amid these volatile conditions, including a deadly attack at a nightclub frequented by UN personnel and expatriates in Bamako last month, Minusma is contending with popular protests against its operations. In some cases, the demonstrations have been incited by accusations of bias and favoritism from rival separatist and pro-government factions.
Friedrich Ebert has published five other public opinion studies in Mali since 2012, but its latest version is the first to survey residents in Kidal, a city often described as the birthplace of Tuareg separatism. It is not a welcoming place to outsiders, including the UN peacekeepers based there.
The study found that only 16 percent of the population in Kidal had a positive appreciation of Minusma, while 45 percent viewed its contribution as negative. In Ménaka, a northeastern town in the Gao region, where competing armed groups also exert considerable influence on politics and security, 58 percent of the respondents had a negative view of Minusma, compared with 22 percent, who favor the mission.
The population in Gao, meanwhile, a regional capital and home to the main Minusma base, expressed the strongest appreciation of the mission’s work, with 37 percent of those surveyed viewing it as positive, and only 27 percent as negative.
But the study was done a few weeks before UN peacekeepers used tear gas and fired shots defensively at an anti-Minusma demonstration in Gao on Jan. 27, killing three protesters and injuring 18 others.
An independent UN inquiry into the incident concluded that at least four members of a Minusma police unit of Rwandans had used “unauthorized and excessive force” during the protests. UN officials say the police officers involved will be sent back to Rwanda and that the families of the victims will receive compensation.
Radhia Achouri, Minusma’s spokeswoman, said the mission was confident it had reconciled its relationship with residents of Gao after the deadly protests. Diop, the foreign minister, concurred at the UN Security Council briefing.
“Our transparency and honesty have thankfully helped us re-establish comprehensive dialogue with populations in Gao,” Achouri said in an email. “It’s important for us to create healthy and trusting relationships with local populations so we can conduct our work effectively and help Mali overcome the challenges it currently faces.”
The UN secretary-general’s latest report on Mali conveys alarm over the rise of civilian casualties, widespread banditry and serious human-rights violations, including arbitrary arrest, enforced disappearances, sexual violence (including against children) and the alleged recruitment of children by armed groups.
Achouri said that Minusma understood the public frustration over the worsening security situation and noted that the mission was trying to identify the reasons behind negative opinions of its operations. But she said that some of the perceptions were most likely based on unrealistic expectations about the UN force’s mandate and abilities — a problem for its peacekeeping forces worldwide.
The UN said that while some progress in Mali has been made with more troop deployment, delays in sending an infantry battalion and helicopter unit to western Mali have hurt Minusma’s ability to protect humanitarian convoys, which are increasingly attacked. (El Salvador is about to send 90 combat troops and three helicopters to the UN peacekeeping base in Timbuktu, reported in PassBlue.)
Yet the survey found that above all, “the preservation of Mali’s territorial integrity” was the most often-cited nonnegotiable point, said residents in Gao, Menaka and Kidal, including 59 percent of those polled in the latter city.
“Our mission has an extremely important role to play in the stabilization of the country,” Achouri said. “We believe Mali’s population recognizes this also, and that’s why we keep working at it every day.”
We welcome your comments on this article. What are your thoughts?
Sam J. Trudeau is a freelance writer based in Canada who contributes regularly to CJAD 800, a Montreal talk-radio station, and to CP24 Toronto News. He has previously worked as a producer and correspondent for Talk Radio News Service, covering the UN in New York, and as the UN representative in New York for Reporters Without Borders. He has a B.A. in political science from Concordia University in Montreal and is fluent in English and in French.